Books · Literacy · Reading · Reflection · Students · Teaching

Making the Wrong Choice

This past fall, my teaching partner, Jen, and I decided to do a round of historical fiction book clubs before we had our students dive in and write historical fiction narratives. I spent the better part of a week looking at titles and curating what I thought was an excellent list. My personal experience with historical fiction appropriate for 8th graders was fairly limited — a LOT of it was focused on WWII and Holocaust stories, a product of teaching Elie Wiesel’s Night for years. I wanted to find a wider range of options.

When a teacher assigns book choices to students, she wants to make sure she is giving them the best options — high interest, variety of subjects and ability levels, and her own excitement for the books. Students can be convinced to read something they feel a little “meh” about if their teacher gives it a good recommendation. Sometimes, this feels like a lot of pressure! I pulled books from ones I had read, but also took to GoodReads and other teachers’ recommendations before finalizing my list of 11 books they could choose from. However, I did what I probably shouldn’t have done — I put some books on the list that neither Jen nor I had read. I checked the website Common Sense Media for those books, and all seemed fine.

Until I started reading one of them.

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina is an exciting, terrifying, and heartbreaking novel. It’s an excellent version of historical fiction that really grabs the reader, and focuses on a time period that isn’t usually the subject of young adult novels: the summer of 1977 in New York City, when the Son of Sam murders were taking place.

Our 8th graders were drawn to the description of this book and quite a few book club groups chose it as their selection. As I started to have my doubts on whether this book was “appropriate” as a recommended choice, I justified that some of the more mature content was okay for 8th graders. I even told myself that most of the kids who had chosen this book were already reading more mature books in their independent reading lives.

But then I kept reading. And more red flags kept popping up. I could envision parent emails and calls questioning my school-sanctioned book club choice. Then I realized I had forgotten to check if this title was approved by our district for 8th graders. It wasn’t.

I jumped into action, emailing Jen and letting her know that we had to pull this book. I posted on our class page that groups would have to choose a new title. I came up with a plan to offer a couple of other books instead, and give them two more days to get their books. The next day in class, I talked to my groups and explained the situation, apologized if they had already gotten the book. I told them they were welcome to read it on their own — but the school couldn’t sponsor it as a class read. Some kids were initially annoyed, but they didn’t mention it again after the day I talked to them. They had moved on, and it didn’t become an issue. Crisis averted.

If you have the chance to read Burn Baby Burn, do it. It’s a fantastic story. I’m hoping some of my students will still read it (and maybe be even more intrigued now!). But I’m definitely going to read any new books before I offer them as class reads for kids.

ASSESSMENT · Goal Setting · Reflection · Students

Alternate Exams: Turning Assessments Into Opportunities

Last year, our English I team made the revelatory decision to get rid of our traditional multiple-choice exam, and I will never look back.

With the help of my teammates (English I teachers at Dublin Coffman High School), Dr. Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Mrs. Shayne Bauer, I crafted this post.

The decision to change our exam was a long time coming. For years, many of us questioned and debated the validity of our district-wide multiple-choice exam, so when our district, which includes three high schools, no longer required a completely common exam and gave each high school the option to assess as they deemed appropriate or best for students, our team at Coffman High School jumped at the opportunity to do something different.

We made this decision for many reasons. Very few  English I teachers in the district could agree upon common reading passages that were appropriate for all (~1,200) of our students. Similarly, we found “difficulty in writing robust but reasonable multiple choice questions” (Dr. Kucinski). This was especially apparent when analyzing the data collected from these multiple choice exams. We continually debated the validity of the multiple questions and, therefore, our exam as a whole. Moreover, students’ grades in class after eighteen weeks of learning rarely matched their exam scores. For all of these reasons and more, our team didn’t feel that the current multiple-choice exam reflected the true abilities of our students.

While re-writing our exam, we shared many hopes:

  • We hoped that the new exam would provide the opportunity for all students to be successful.
  • We hoped that the new exam would more accurately reflect and celebrate the strengths of our students. Likewise, we hoped that it would help highlight areas in which students had room to improve.
  • We hoped that students would feel more in control of their exam score.
  • We hoped that the data gathered from the new exam would be more meaningful and easier to formulate future lessons and units from.
  • “We know that for many students, standardized tests are just a point of ‘doing school.’ As such, they merely want to survive them. We sought to change that.” – Dr. Kucinski
  • We hoped to “discourage cramming and mere memorization” – Mrs. Bauer  

Our team worked together to create what I would describe as an extended-response(written), evidence-based, reflection-heavy exam. We included in it all of the 9th grade English standards assessed throughout the first semester of the school year in addition to other questions about academic behaviors. To be frank, I do not think that our current exam is without faults. We’ve administered it three years in a row now, and we have tweaked a few questions each time based on the last year’s results. I’m sure we’ll make edits and improvements between now and giving it again next year, too. With anything new, there is uncertainty.

For students, our new exam provides these exciting and unique opportunities:

  • To reflect and practice metacognition
  • To revisit old work
  • To set future learning goals
  • To be honest about learning patterns and learning preferences as well as good and bad habits
  • To identify areas of growth and mastery as well as areas that need more practice
  • To review why we do what we do in English class  
  • “Increased awareness of standards” – Mrs. Shayne Bauer
  • “Ownership” – Dr. Steve Kucinski

Students, for the most part, appreciate the non-traditional approach and especially appreciate the week’s worth of time given to complete the exam. Though, there are a few students who ask, “Can’t we just take a test?” Students also appreciate the efficacy of knowing I can do well on this. Likewise, there is no guesswork (I don’t know what they’re going to ask me) on the exam or any double jeopardy (Well, I didn’t do well all quarter, so I’m surely not going to do well on this exam either). (Dr. Kucinski)

One of my students even took the time to email me this feedback in her free time: “I thought this year’s midterm was well made and smartly scheduled. It was not as stressful as other exams. I liked that it made you reflect on what happened in the first half of the year. I learned more about my strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reading and writing… I would like more exams like this.”

At this point, you probably just want to see the exam. Here it is:

COPY OF BLANK EXAM

And here are some student responses:

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Surprising Findings:

  • What students identify as their weaknesses (versus what we teachers identify)
  • What students are most proud of
  • Students fessing up to being lazy
  • Students not knowing where to find feedback and rubric scores on Schoology (LMS)
  • Students not understanding weighted grades and the distinction between the different grading categories we use
  • Students struggling to articulate what and how they’ve learned and where their deficits are (Dr. Kucinski)
  • Students not being okay with saying ‘I didn’t learn everything’ or ‘I don’t know how I know this’ (Dr. Kucinski)

Obviously, we know this exam is non-traditional. We’re curious to know what other educators think about it. Maybe you think this is a downright awful idea. This exam works for us, but could this ever be an assessment in your classroom?

Classroom Libraries · co-teaching · Culture · Literacy · Reading · Reflection · Students · Teaching · Uncategorized

Taking “A Novel Approach” to EMPOWERing Students

img_3133Taking “A Novel Approach” to EMPOWERing Students 

Introduction

This year, I read both Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani and A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching, and Choice by Kate Roberts, and these books inspired me to make huge changes. Most notably, Deborah Maynard (intervention specialist) and I used these two texts to collaboratively make changes to our end-of-the-year unit surrounding The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

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A Novel Approach

Over the last few years, we have made some gradual changes away from whole-class required reads for many reasons, but The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has always remained a staple of our English I curriculum.

The Debate:

Whole-class texts: Independent reading:
“Believing in teaching whole-class texts–long or short–suggests the belief that struggle is productive for young readers, that kids that kids need to read great books, that focusing on a common text builds strong and literate reading communities, and that students benefit from controlled questions and activities led by a proficient reader (the teacher).” “Choosing to focus on independent reading shows the beliefs that reading ability matters, that kids are going to benefit most from having experiences with great books that they can read on their own with strength, and that knowing the skills it takes to read any book will help them to build greater independence. This also suggests a belief that choice in reading is essential in building a strong reading life and that often our very identities are in part shaped by the books we have read.”
Both excerpts are from Kate Roberts’ A Novel Approach: Whole Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching, and Choice

I personally tend to value independent reading over whole-class novels, but Roberts’ book provided great reminders of the importance of mentor texts, shared experiences, and modeling. Plus, it merges the best of both worlds, so it gave me fresh ideas and new energy going into 4th quarter, the only quarter that I still teach a whole-class novel. For the last few years, I’ve tended to focus on all the negatives of whole-class novels and all the positives of independent reading, but Roberts’ merging of the two provides a unique balance that allows time for both types of instruction and celebrates both types of learning.

Empower

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Deb Maynard and I both took a course led by Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Kristy Venne (@KristyVenne) surrounding the book Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning. I took photos of the pages that resonated with me the most.

 

With this in mind, PLUS the ideas presented in A Novel Approach, we ultimately decided NOT to get rid of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet altogether, but instead, keep Romeo and Juliet as a mentor text, teach the reading skills required to tackle such a challenging read, and help students apply those skills to their independent reading books.

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 2.33.38 PMIn addition to allowing students to purposely pair choice novels to The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, we gave students choice in writing prompts, and students proposed summative celebrations of learning rather than us assigning and requiring the standard compare/contrast essay that we always have.

You can read more about how we introduced the new unit and unique expectations to students and families here.

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Throughout the unit, Deb and I read contemporary YA novels, too, and modeled all of the thinking and writing that we asked students to do.

We modeled thinking that we actually do when reading any book for any purpose since most of our students were reading different books than us and each other.

Taking the journey with students helped us to better know what skills were truly necessary, what work was especially hard, and what challenges most students would face.  

Critical Questions

1. What decisions are we making for students that they could make for themselves?
2. What changes should be made to inspire students to build independence and take ownership over their reading lives?
3. How can we make this shift:

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WHO – Deborah Maynard (intervention specialist) and I co-teach English I all day (five 48-minute periods).  We worked together to make all of these changes to our teaching routines and strategies and to make changes to our unit expectations and assessments in order to empower students to take ownership over their reading lives. Hear more about WHAT and WHY here: 

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WATCH VIDEO HERE!

WHERE – Dublin Coffman High School, 9th grade, English I, inclusion

WHEN – 4th Quarter, 2018; The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet Unit

HOW – surveys, flipgrid reflections, online discussions, observations

LIMITATIONS – It is difficult to quantify and calculate things such as empowerment, engagement, interest, and rigor, so we’ve had to rely on our observations, and have done our best to encourage students to be 100% honest in their survey responses and flipgrid reflections.

 

Because our unit in its entirety and our Action Research Project involve so many parts, I am going to break all of that info into multiple blog posts. Plus, we haven’t even finished reading Romeo and Juliet, and students are just now starting to work on their summative celebrations of learning, so stay tuned! More will be coming in a week or two, and I can’t wait to share!

blogging · co-teaching · Culture · Environment · Leading · Reflection · Students · Teaching

It’s Not About the Donuts: When the Learner is the Teacher

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My students teach me so much. I mean that. I feel like I’m always apologizing to my 1st period class.

I’ll use today as an example, but first, let me back up a step.

We have been working on persuasion. We studied the rhetorical devices (repetition, parallelism, analogy) used in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” Students practiced using those devices in their own writing. Students performed persuasive skits using ethos, pathos, and logos. We then analyzed Super Bowl commercials for persuasive techniques. Now, students are embarking upon a journey to practice persuasive writing and argumentative writing which we spent Monday distinguishing.

Here is a list of differences that  students generated:

Persuasive Writing Argumentative Writing
  • Aims to get readers to believe you opinion
  • Supported with persuasive techniques
  • Informal
  • Supported with facts and statistics
  • Involves two sides
    • counterclaim/rebuttal
  • Involves research
    • Investigative
  • More formal

Tuesday, we officially started our persuasive writing unit. We told each class that they’d work together to write and publish a blog, so each class period voted on a topic. Our desks are in groups of four, and we asked groups to discuss the topic and then craft claims. This caused quite a bit of fun, healthy debate, but in each class period, we were able to come to a decision.

  • Period 1: The driving age should be lowered to 15.5, and teens should be able to get their temps by 14.5.
  • Period 2: Dublin Coffman High School should start at 9:00AM (instead of 7:55).
  • Period 3:Schools should never completely block social media use nor search engines, but these technologies should be heavily monitored.
  • Period 5:Dublin Coffman High School should adopt an open campus schedule like colleges.
  • Period 6:The legal drinking age should be raised to twenty-five.

We showed students a model from last year as well as the requirements of the assignment.

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We have 7 groups of desks in our classroom, so we decided to have groups volunteer to complete different parts of our persuasive blog post, so three groups chose three different persuasive techniques, three other groups claimed the rhetorical devices, and one group found media to include. This all happened on Monday, and it was AWESOME. It went so well, in fact, that I emailed our literacy coach to brag. I just knew that she’d be so proud of all the modeling, scaffolding, and most importantly, learning happening in our room.

Fast-forward to today. I enter 1st period with 1 goal in mind. I want the whole class to collaboratively work on piecing together the parts of the blog that groups crafted separately yesterday. I tell them this. I stand at the board and ask students to help me outline our blog. One student helps me do this. One student. One. So, we are not off to a great start when it comes to collaboratively writing a blog post, but I have high hopes for the next part. I ask a student from each group to get on a shared Google Doc. I ask them to copy and paste their group’s work from yesterday into the document. This takes longer than expected, and as I look around the room, only the 7 students logged onto the document are engaged in organizing the blog. The other 20 are not interested in what we are doing no matter how hard I try to redirect their attention to what is happening on the projector. It doesn’t take me long to realize that THIS IS NOT WORKING. It’ll be torture to continue this for another 30 minutes, and I definitely can’t continue this all day long, so after 10 minutes of this unbearable struggle, I abandon ship and QUICKLY come up with an alternative.

I tell 1st period, “I’m sorry guys, and I’m sorry again for having to apologize to your class period so often, but this is not working like I imagined it would. I really wanted us all to craft a blog together, but this is just not going well, so here’s what we’re going to do. Students currently on the Google Doc, make a copy of the document and then share your copy with the rest of your group that you’re sitting with now and that you worked with yesterday. You’re now going to work in teams of just four rather than as a whole class. I want you to act like you’re a real editing team for a real blog. Turn what you and your classmates came up with yesterday into a cohesive blog. The best blog of the class wins donuts tomorrow, and I’ll also publish your blog to my real blog. You only have until the rest of the period. Ready? Go!”

And just like that, all students are involved again, and many are more invested in their writing than I have ever seen before!

… and then we run out of time.

Darn.

I’ll have to give them more time tomorrow….  

BUT, at least I know what to do 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th period because I have learned so much about what not to do during 1st period.

2nd period enters, and so does my co-teacher, Deb (she was in a meeting during 1st period). I get the students all set up to use the entire period productively in groups of four, and I use the same incentives of donuts and the most authentic audience I can conceivably provide on the spot(this blog). I fill Deb in on the debacle of 1st period.

We watch second period closely. We celebrate. We celebrate because we’ve been reading Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, and therefore, we no longer want to make decisions for our students that they can make for themselves. Our conversation goes something like this:

“This is going so much better than last period”

“This is good. I like this.”

“They’re struggling, and struggling is good.”

“They’re having to use each other and their resources instead of us. ”

“You’re right! Remember last year?

“We gave them a blog template to fill in. That was dumb.”

“We designed their blogs for them and removed all of the creative fun on accident”

“Look at them arguing over titles and fonts this year.”

“They’re really getting into it!”

We continue to watch closely. We circle the room. We listen to conversations. We mostly try to remain hands-off so that students figure it out on their own. Toward the end, we start to peek over shoulders. Many of the blogs don’t look like blogs at all. They look like a bunch of copied and pasted elements lacking any cohesive whole. Even the blogs that look like blogs don’t really read like blogs. We troubleshoot, and we try to explain this quickly before they head out the door.

3rd period enters.  We know what to do now. We explain everything just as we did last period including the donut incentive and semi-authentic audience deal, but this time, we get them set up for even more success than our 1st and 2nd periods by showing the model again and emphasizing what the end product should look like. We watch closely. It’s going well but not perfectly. I notice that some groups are totally engaged. I pick up on the fact that some students really want to win the donuts. Some students really want to show up on my blog. Some students just want to win. Some students are not engaged. Some students are letting their group members carry all the weight, so Deb and I chat.

“This is going pretty well, but it could be better. Why aren’t all our kids empowered?”

I think about the Empower book again.

What decisions are we making for students that they could make for themselves?

“Next period, let’s let students pick their own groups. I don’t think we’d see the lack of engagement if we let them pick their own groups.”

“Let’s try it!”

5th period enters. We really know what to do now. As students walk in, we tell them to choose their own seats and to choose wisely because they’re expected to communicate well and work collaboratively. We show the model and explain expectations. We incentivize with donuts and a chance to appear on this blog. Groups are working fanatically! Everyone is engaged. This is what teachers dream of.

I watch closely. I keep thinking. I start to worry. I’m a worrier. This is going well… right? I’m not just imagining it, am I? It took a lot to get here. I bribed kids with donuts. I’m pretty sure that’s a huge pedagogical NO-NO, but I was desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures. They look engaged. They even look empowered. I wonder what would have happened if I had never mentioned donuts, but I can’t renege on that now.

6th period enters. Despite my worries, we do everything the same as 5th period because it worked and because I can’t offer donuts to 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th period without offering them to 6th period. Deb and I stand in the middle and watch closely. There’s no doubt;  they’re engaged; they’re empowered. They’re working so hard, and they’re learning so much. They bell is about to ring, and one group is arguing. I listen.

“We should NOT have all of our names in the header.”

“Yeah, then all our names show up on EVERY page!”

“Yes, we should! It looks good!”

“No, we shouldn’t. It looks dumb!”

[warning bell rings]

“Mrs. Belden will just remove our names anyways.”

“Yeah, because we’re going to win and make it on her blog.”

“Well, we’re NOT going to win with our names on EVERY page!”

“Yeah, remove the names so that we can win the donuts!”

“We’re not going to win guys. We’re NOT going to get the donuts!”

“YES, we ARE going to win the donuts!”

“Guys, we did really good today, AND IT’S NOT ABOUT THE DONUTS!!!”

“Yeah, IT’S ABOUT THE JOURNEY!” [boys exit in fits of laughter]

The room is empty, and I’m sitting at my desk smiling like a fool because they have NO IDEA what a journey the day has been.

WINNING BLOGS:

Culture · Environment · Students · Writing Workshop

Slowing Down for Writing Success

It seems like everyone is in such a hurry these days – me included at times. This past week my older daughter was in a hurry to get to work. As she prepared to turn into her workplace, there was a car taking up most of her turn lane. She was going too fast to stop and allow the car to make its turn, so she ran up onto the curb HARD. The impact slashed a hole in her tire which was flat by the time she parked. (Luckily she was at her place of work and didn’t have to pull over on a road, and she was completely safe.) There were tears when she called and plenty of panic. Once we took some time to process what happened, our conversation consisted of “What could you have done?” and “Would things have been ok if you had slowed down and allowed the vehicle in your way to get out of the way?”

As I spent a few days processing this incident, I was reminded of the fact that even in my classroom I am often rushing to get to the end goal. Sometimes it is with reading a shared text or with a writing project. Teachers often ponder where to find more time and sometimes if it’s worth it to take the time.

My learners recently embarked on a narrative writing assignment from brainstorming to first draft to revising to a final draft. As a teaching team, we chose from the beginning to slow down and spend time before putting pencil to paper or fingers to a keyboard to begin the stories. Using “data” from the previous year’s students’ struggles, we knew that taking the time to fully research and to fully develop a character was important. That meant spending multiple days in class asking students to plan and get ready for writing.

Believe me, there were quite a few students who said, “Can’t we just write?” I explained that I had watched students struggle the previous year to fully develop characters and to write narratives that had a theme (which is required by Ohio’s standards for eighth grade writers). Students spent two days researching the time period for their historical narratives, three days working on who the characters were going to be, and another day on story arcs. Several lessons were modeled on Units of Study for Teaching Writing K-8.

The next week, the writers in my classes began to compose their first drafts. As they worked all they needed was time. Often they would walk into class itching to get to the Chromebooks. It was a slow process for some as they’d sit and stare at their computers or their notes. It was a quick process for others whose fingers would fly as they got into their writing. After about a week of drafting in class, most first drafts were complete. Others were finished quickly after.

Then we took a break. Just like my daughter, I asked my students to process and think about what had happened. This time away gave them a different perspective, and it also gave them ideas about what to do next and what to do the next time they looked at their drafts.

During the “break”, I read the historical narratives and gave feedback – the positives and the places where extra work was needed.

The third week of work brought us to our revising phase. There were many small group mini-lessons offered for both extension and refinement areas. Every day in class was offered as time to revise and edit. Again, we took our time.

I sometimes feel like taking “time” is undervalued in education. There’s so much to cover or we have to get to ____________ before the semester is over. I try to never let myself feel like this in my classroom. My students did good work this past week. There were many conversations between writing partners. I saw students going back to do more research on the time period. Quite a few students worked on elaborating with characters and theme. The use of dialogue was examined and questioned. Drafts were scrutinized and edited.

Slowing down is a good reminder for all of us – whether we’re driving in a car or working with students. I still have to remind myself of this in my classroom, but I firmly believe that my students are better writers because of the time we take working through the process.

 

Reading · Students · Writing Workshop

Building Stamina

As I work my way through the first mile of my long run, I usually hit a point when I want to give up. I’m too tired. My stomach aches. Did I just come down on my ankle wrong? There’s always some excuse that I could give for turning around and going home. Rarely, if there really is a problem, I let myself. Most of the time though, I stick with it and push through. I have to build my running stamina, or I would never be able to reach my goals.

While running those long runs (anywhere from 6-12 miles), I am reminded of this idea of stamina. My mind tends to wander when I run, and I can always make clear connections between what my students face as readers and writers, and what I face as a runner.

I get it – we all have things that are challenging for us. For me, running keeps me in shape, but it’s not always easy. Most days, I don’t want to lace up my Hokas and pump out those miles. But the feeling I have when I am done, when I have accomplished something even though it was hard getting started, is so rewarding.

I work toward running long distances because I know it is good for me, and that I have set a goal (usually a half marathon, or 13.1 miles), that I am working toward. It takes a while to build up to the longer distance – I can’t go out and run 12 miles at the beginning of my training, when the farthest I can usually go is six. (And I can only get those six in because I’m always making sure I’m keeping up with some sort of running plan in the “off season” – it’s like students’ summer break!) However, I need to keep this in mind when thinking about expectations for my students – I can’t expect some of them to be able to write a 2-page paper because they’re struggling through that first paragraph.

There’s always a point, a hump, that you have to get over when working on something that takes extended effort. For me as a runner, that point is mile 1 (why is the first mile always so dang hard?), and hitting the halfway point. For students, this may be just getting words down on a page in writing workshop, or reading through a whole page without stopping during independent reading.

Even when I’m reading something that isn’t fully grabbing my attention, it takes me some checkpoints in order to push myself to keep going. Just read for 10 minutes. Finish this chapter.

There are moments when temporarily quitting is okay – injury (running), or just flat-out dislike for a story, character, or a writing style (reading). Most of the time though, we need to stick with it. What makes it hard is what makes it worth it. With practice, you only get stronger.

And that will make it easier next time.

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Environment · Students · Teaching

Writing Partners in an ELA Classroom

This blog is a testament to the power of writing and working with a group or a partner. As Rita and I explained in the “About” page of the blog, writing can be a daunting task – for adults and certainly for students too. Some people find that writing rolls right off the fingertips and others find it difficult. As I sit on this Labor Day morning at a Starbucks near my house, I find it challenging. The atmosphere seems perfect – coffee, laptop, beautiful sunrise, no TV or kids, inspiring music; however, I’ve been sitting for a while trying to decide where and how to start. My students are embarking this week on their first writing which will serve as a diagnostic tool for me and then they will take the initial draft to a final copy. I envision that starting the writing will be difficult for them too. Luckily, I have a group of writers to support me and who will give me honest, needed feedback before I publish this post.

For the last few years, I have tried to provide my students with the support that I have received from my writing friends by allowing them to work with a writing partner. The idea comes from Units of Study – Writing for Teaching Writing K-8 by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at the Teacher’s College. I love how this has worked in my classroom. Writing partners start working together from the brainstorming phase of the writing process all the way through to the final product. The students get to know their partner’s writing almost as well as their own. There is definitely power in that.

Writing partners are NOT editors. I honestly have found very few eighth graders who are qualified to correct the spelling, grammar, punctuation, or usage of their peers. Writing partners are question-askers and feedback-givers. Helping another person with writing is not something intuitive to most students/adults. We spend time in class learning about how to be a good writing partner. It is a process!

These are the main guidelines in my classroom for writing partners:

  • Read the writing carefully and think carefully about the goals for the piece
  • Offer constructive criticism – what MIGHT your partner change to make the writing better?
  • Give feedback on how to improve the writing – what can your partner do better?

With our first writing of the year, I introduced the concept of writing partners to the class. I modeled what working with a writing partner looks like by using this writing group. Along with discussion of how everyone (even J.K. Rowling) works through multiple versions and drafts of writing and how everyone elicits feedback from others, I showed students Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 10.04.24 AM.pngmy draft of an earlier blog post. We talked about how my writing partners read my writing carefully, gave me suggestions on how to make the writing better, and also what they liked about the piece.

Getting writing partners started is definitely a process. It isn’t easy sometimes. You will have partners who gel immediately and have the most amazing conversations about their writing. And you will have partners who struggle and need one-on-one guidance from you. Students get more comfortable working with a writing partner as the year goes on and the discussions expand to lengthy conversations. I firmly believe in the power of using writing partners and work throughout the year to make the experience worthwhile for every student.

Some things to consider when and if you want to incorporate writing partners into your writing workshop:

  1. How do you want to put partners together? Do you want to assign partners or let students choose their partners?
  2. Will you allow students to team up more than once throughout the school year?
  3. How do you want students to share their writing? Google Docs? Pass Writer’s Notebooks back and forth?
  4. What strategies will you have at the ready if the partnership isn’t working well?

Student thoughts on writing partners:

“Writing partners are very helpful for me because I am very appreciative of getting many opinions on my writing so that it can be exactly how I want it to be when I turn it in.  It’s very helpful, also, because writing partners are a fresh pair of eyes that can catch small mistakes that you did not previously see.” -Olivia B

“I like the use of a writing partner because after awhile you get sick of reading your essay over and over again and it starts to make all of it the same. In the end, it was nice to have fresh eyes to read it and suggest anything to add to or take away from my writing to make it the best it can be.”  – Alyssa H.

“The good thing about our writing partners is that we had someone to ask a question whether it was about a word or if a sentence made any sense.  Also, they gave us some constructive criticism which helped make our essays better.” – Scott S.

I love reading student reflections at the end of a writing unit, and I always elicit feedback about writing partners. These responses help to validate the choice to incorporate partnerships into daily practice. I don’t know what I would do without my partners, and oftentimes, my students feel the same.

Books · Classroom Libraries · Community · Culture · Leading · Literacy · Reading · Students

TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY All High School Teachers Should Read Young Adult Books

blog41. For all of the same reasons that you read adult books!

In all seriousness, young adult books can be just as fun, entertaining, moving, informational, important, and challenging as books that are written for adults.

2. To realize that YA books have a place in the classroom.

By exposing yourself to a wide range of YA texts, you’ll be able to purposefully expose your students to those texts, too. More importantly, you’ll want to do so. Much of this post may sounds like it is for English teachers, but that is absolutely not the case. In recent years, we have had both history and science teachers add libraries to their classrooms because our staff is recognizing the importance of promoting literacy across the contents. The more I read YA, the more I recognize that these books(plural!) NEED to be in the hands of my students.

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3. To teach students how to read.

After recognizing the value of YA Literature, I came to realize the necessity of teaching students how to read whatever they’re reading rather than teaching what I’m looking for students to gain from a whole-class novel. In a sense, by valuing YA books, I like to think that I’m now focusing on teaching the reader, not the reading. This includes teaching basic and specific reading skills as well as universal themes and archetypes.

4. To be able to actually converse with students about books (and not interview, quiz, interrogate, or grade them).

There’s nothing shocking here. When you’re reading books that students are reading, you’re able to authentically dialogue with students. I will be the first to admit that when I wasn’t reading YA books, “conversations” with students about books were somewhat phony. Students need to see adults who read for pleasure, and students need reassurance and reinforcement that reading is both a delightful and a worthwhile pastime. If we as educators always associate required assignments and grades with students’ reading, we are killing these notions. Make your passion for reading visible to students and show students that you care about their passions by reading YA books.

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5. To build rapport with your students – truly!

THIS IS MY FAVORITE REASON! I’m not sure that there is any better, quicker, easier way to get to know students than by showing interest in their reading lives. You can learn a LOT about students’ interests, hobbies, after school life, home life, etc. by asking some simple questions such as these: What are you currently reading? What did you read this summer? What’s the best book that you’ve ever read? Why do you think you enjoy that genre so much? How many books do you have in your home?

Rapport is built by continuing to show interest in students’ reading lives beyond the first week of school (after beginning of the year reading surveys). It is built by finding ways to celebrate students’ individual reading successes and by finding that book to make a difference for a non-reader.  Imagine recommending a book to a student that becomes their favorite or changes their life. By starting the conversation now, this is the type of work that lays the foundation for a life-long relationship, one where you can genuinely ask students “What are you reading?” when you run into them ten years from now. This is the type of work that feeds the soul. This is why we became teachers.

6. To be reminded of what teen life is like.

From attending prom senior year, to combating bullying on a daily basis, to experiencing lovesickness and hormones for the first time, to living in less-than-ideal homes, to navigating the cafeteria, to finding a place where you fit in, to feeling anxious about college admissions, to playing on a team and learning how to be coached, to learning about your sexuality or questioning it, etc. etc. etc. Let me just put it this way: when you’re reading YA books, it’s a little easier to empathize with students and understand why your class’s assignment may not be at the forefront of their priorities. More importantly, it may be a little easier to understand why your class’s assignment shouldn’t be at the forefront of their priorities.

7. To stay focused on what is most important.

If you start to prioritize time to read young adult books when you haven’t in the past, you may find yourself re-prioritizing many aspects of your personal and professional worlds. Since it is obvious that students need me to make time for them to read, when making decisions for my students and my classroom, I now ask myself questions such as these: What do students really need to learn? What do students truly need to do? Is that lesson actually important to students’ growth, or do we just do it because we’ve always done it? And, if I don’t prioritize time to read, how can I expect students to?

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8. To become a better book matchmaker.

Students desperately need help finding books that they enjoy! It’s no surprise that the more YA I read, the better I become at this. Nothing excites me more than (after engaging in conversation with a student) being able to exclaim, “OHH! I have the PERFECTbook for you!” Also, now that I’ve read a fairly large percentage of the books in my classroom library, I am able to notice patterns between books and students. For example, I can make recommendations such as, “You liked All the Bright Places? Then try A Million Junes. I think you’ll like it, too!”

Admittedly, I used to recommend books pretty superficially, based on the little that I knew about them from reviews, colleagues, word of mouth, and the descriptions on the books’ covers. Let me be clear – I still do this and probably always will (with a disclaimer that I haven’t actually read the book); I just don’t do this as often as I used to for two reasons. (1) I’ve read more books and continue to read YA books. (2) I sometimes cringe now when I’m currently reading a book that I have recommended in the past while thinking to myself, “Yikes… I recommended this book to that student?”

9. To be able to book talk – an art in itself.

Magic happens when students trust your judgment. Because students quickly learn that I read YA books regularly, students are willing to try books that I recommend. I am able to reach multiple students at once through book talks. When I book talk, I choose one, two, or three titles to present to students. I love exposing students to different genres, topics, and authors, and I try to let the books speak for themselves by reading short passages aloud. Book talking is just one way to celebrate reading publicly and routinely. Sometimes, I have to create waiting lists for titles or scrounge up extra copies of books because the demand for the titles is so high after book talking them.

10. To build a classroom library for your students.

Notice the emphasis on your. Nobody knows what books your students need better than you and your students. Every year, I ask students what books should be added to our classroom library. It is important to me that students know our classroom is truly a community where their voices matter. Also, students want to read books that I wouldn’t have chosen for our classroom myself. Personally, I don’t enjoy sci-fi/fantasy much, but my students do, so I need their help in selecting titles to add to this genre. This year, I plan on asking my students to help me identify gaps that need to be filled in library. By using Goodreads.com and a few other sites and blogs, I am able to keep up with the newest, hottest YA releases and popular authors, which excites me and my students.

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11. To get to know your students’ academic abilities better.

Now that I’m reading what students are reading, I have a better grasp on students’ current reading abilities, what reading skills I need to teach, who just needs a confidence boost, who doesn’t read at all, who reads avidly, who has access to books at home, who is good at faking it (playing the “game” of school), who has reading stamina and who needs to build it, and I don’t have to test or survey students for this information. I can gather it simply by observing what students are choosing to read.

12. To be a role model for colleagues and to build a reading culture/community in your school.

If you’re genuinely enthusiastic about reading YA for your students’ sake and for your personal pleasure, your excitement will spread! Just a few years ago, I was inspired to make independent reading a priority in my classroom, and now I’m reading 50-75 books a year when I used to read just a handful. In the last 3 years, a student book club has formed (lead by a history teacher!), two different staff book clubs have formed, non-ELA classrooms have added libraries to their rooms, and relationships between students and colleagues have been strengthened. We (Dublin Coffman High School) legitimately have a reading community to be proud of now.

I feel a calling to model and spread enthusiasm for reading YA books to my colleagues because every single year there are students that I fail to reach in English class, that I fail to recommend the perfect books to in order to turn non-readers into readers and occasional readers into avid readers. I truly believe that the right book(s) can have this impact, which drives me to read as many books as I do. It also makes me acutely aware of the fact that I won’t ever be able to reach all of my students, BUT I have high hopes that my students’ sophomore, junior, and senior year teachers will be able to reach them with their book recommendations! As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village,’ and an entire school community of readers will obviously have a much bigger impact than a few teachers, so I am begging you; if you work with adolescents, please read young adult books.

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13. To #bewhatyouteach

“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” – W.E.B. Du Bois

Students

Every child can become a mathematician

My father instilled a love of math in me at a young age through challenging math riddles, logic puzzles, games and conversations.  I remember him casually presenting ways to push my thinking, challenge my abilities and have fun with numbers, shapes and logic.  This laid the foundation of an early confidence in me that I could think critically, mathematically, and logically.  But more importantly, it instilled in my young self the norm that math can be entertaining….dare, I say, fun!  He did this effortlessly.  It wasn’t something he made me do;, it was something fun for us to do together.  I don’t know that he could predict the impact that this kind of family fun would have on his three daughters because it wasn’t forced…these fun family times just happened.  

It’s been 15 years since I entered the education world as a high school teacher.  My goal each day has been to bring enthusiasm to the math world through my work with students and teachers.  I have watched thousands of teenagers pass through high school.  Many arrive in 9th grade saying (nearly bragging) that “I can’t do math!”.  I have found that I must remind parents at Open House that, “No matter what, please never say to your child, ‘I hated math’, ‘I was never good at it’, ‘It’s not in our genes to be good at math’, or ‘Math doesn’t really matter. I never use it.’”  

I have yet to hear a student enter high school boasting, “I can’t read!” It’s just not educationally or socially acceptable. Yet, we allow and accept this sort of thinking in regards to math. Math educators are faced with fighting a battle against a society that has been brainwashed to believe that math is boring and only important for some people. But, we know now, that isn’t true.  We know that engaging in math, critical thinking, and logic strengthens the brain, is attainable for all and is an indicator for future success for all children.

Each day, I fight the good fight, encourage my learners to believe in their ability to grow as mathematicians…each and every one of them.  Math can be fun and it is all around us.  Each child can grow their brain mathematically.  We are not born good (or bad) at math.  With hard work, a growth mindset, and a desire to improve, we can all master mathematical thinking.

Why then, does our society continue to view math as something for an elite, small, specialized group?

Literacy education has it right.  

Here is what the literacy world has taught us:

  • Having books in the home is twice as important as the father’s education level. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 2010
  • The single most significant factor influencing a child’s early educational success is an introduction to books and being read to at home prior to beginning school. National Commission on Reading, 1985
  • A single, brief exposure to good reading material can result in a clear increase in enthusiasm for reading.  Ramos and Krashen, 1998; Cho and Krashen, 2002

Here are the messages I have heard about developing readers:

  • Remember that learning to read and to read very well are crucial to your child’s well-being.
  • Surround your child with all kinds of books and make what she’s reading a topic of dinnertime conversation. Listen to the way she talks about books to ensure that her comprehension continues to deepen.
  • Parents should read to their child in the womb.  
  • It may take hard work, but everyone can learn to read.
  • Make it a family affair.  Read together.  Make it fun.

I wonder what impact we can have on kids if we change our messaging about math.  Go home tonight and work through a fun math puzzle with your kids tonight.  Smile, laugh and enjoy it.

Students · Teaching · Writing Workshop

Writing Territories

It’s the first Friday of the school year, and my classroom buzzes with excitement and the movement of pencils across a page. My students are working on creating writing territory maps, and there is a lot of chatter as they discuss some of their favorite things with their writing tables. Two students (oddly) bond over a shared fear of kidnapping, while others find out that they have the same favorite food (spoiler: it’s usually pizza). Regardless of what they’re writing down, they’re all engaged in the process. Creating writing territory maps is one of my favorite activities of the year because of this energetic environment.

The idea of writing territories originated from Nancie Atwell, but I got the idea for creating writing territory maps from two places. First, from Penny Kittle, who referred to these as “heart maps” in her powerful book Book Love, and focused on the music that lives in one’s heart; the second source was the Two Writing Teachers blog, one of my favorite websites for practical teaching ideas and inspirational reflection.

Writing Territories are a powerful writing tool for three main reasons.

  1. Students can create something unique to them.

I am always amazed by the wide range of “map” I see – from kids doing something basic like a heart to something incredibly detailed like a rocketship or a pair of ballet slippers. Students take this map to heart because they get to choose the shape. They get to choose what they write or draw within their map. The only part that I play in this activity is suggesting categories to brainstorm ideas (using this lovely handout from TWT), but they are the designers. I stress to them that what they put in their maps are things they think they might be able to write about later, which brings me to point number two.

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  1. Students have something to reference when they feel stuck.

We do a lot of choice writing in Language Arts. Often when we’re working on a skill or a certain aspect of grammar, students will have the opportunity to choose their topic for writing. It is so much easier for students to find a topic for a “free write” if they have a cache of ideas sitting on the first page of their writer’s notebook. Again, students have choice in what they can write about, and their writing stems from choices they made at the beginning of the year. Everything they pull from these writing territories is all their own, which means that they feel more ownership over their writing. Students feel like their notebooks and their writing for them, not for their teacher.

  1. This activity helps build our writing community.

unnamed-4Students love connecting – heck, all humans love connecting. When my students sit at their tables and brainstorm their favorite things, or places they’ve traveled, or issues they care about, they are bound to talk it out with the people around them. Many of them find connections they didn’t know they had. They may end up talking to someone they thought they had nothing in common with. When students share their interests and what is important to them, it opens them up to sharing their writing as a community. When students struggle, they turn to their classmates for suggestions. By brainstorming and creating writing territory maps, students are given a chance within the first week of school to start building this writing community. They also have the shared experience of creating something that is valuable to their individual self.

There is power in choice, and there is power in students sharing their experiences. One of my main goals as a teacher of writing is to help students take ownership of their writing and to see the value in building strong writing skills. I hope that by appealing to their interests, students can use their writer’s notebooks as a place to explore their own writing selves. They can build on ideas they’ve created within their writing territory maps, and little by little, grow as writers.

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